Packet switching

The modern internet is built atop a set of layers of protocols which are collectively known as TCP/IP. The essential idea behind this system is that anything you get over the internet, such as a document from a Web page, is that all of the data is broken down into tiny packets, and each packet is labeled. The label tells the packet (1) where it is in the larger document, and (2) where the final destination is (ie: where your computer is on the internet).

The beauty of this approach is that all of those packets can take different routes to get to you. In effect, your document “pours” over the internet like a kind of liquid, with each packet acting like a tiny “molecule” that travels along whichever path happens to be least congested. This turns out to be a really good solution, and it’s one of the reasons the internet continues to work even when there is heavy traffic.

The way that each of these packets is intelligently handed from intermediate server to server on its way to you is called “packet switching”.

Several years ago somebody explained to me why a lot of deliveries in Europe are done by truck rather than train, although one would think that trains would be more efficient by virtue of larger speed, greater fuel efficiency and absence of traffic lights. It turns out that a freight car often needs to sit waiting at borders and other switching stations, sometimes for hours or more, until it can be coupled to another train. There just aren’t enough tracks to be completely flexible.

In contrast, putting your product on lots of trucks allows you to deliver it across Europe more efficiently. Each truck driver is free to take whatever route he/she likes, as long as the load gets to its final destination. This is essentially same highly granular packet switching that makes the internet.

We might see the same sort of change in the next ten years or so, as we switch over to self-driving cars. Once driving routes can be computer controlled, automobiles will be able to coordinate with each other, forming an optimizing packet switching traffic network. Those annoying traffic jams that last for hours — the bane of many of today’s commuters — will be a thing of the past.

In his talk yesterday Bill Gates made a similar point about the relationship between education and credentialing. Today there is really only one way to build academic credentials with good provenance: Enroll at an accredited university, and take its degree granting curriculum. He posited that as more on-line options become available, credentialing may begin to decentralize. Education consumers may be able to pick and choose, building their personal credential portfolio from a combination of on-line and brick-and-mortar vendors.

If this scenario comes to fruition, then educational credentialing — the way you will show a potential employer that you are qualified for your next job — will operate via a kind of granular packet switching.

One can see similar patterns in the recent evolution of personal music collections, casual written communication, and even how people arrange to meet for afternoon coffee. I wonder whether this emerging meme is an inevitable consequence of evolving information technology.

2 thoughts on “Packet switching”

  1. WIth PolySocial Reality, we identify outcomes of multiple, multiplexed messaging. One of these outcomes is an overlap problem with messaging behavior, which you have identified. The other problem is that of agency, assuming that people have free routing.

    I don’t have much faith for how cars will handle this yet, which we discuss in:

    Applied Agency: Resolving Multiplexed Communication in Automobiles, here: (jump to page 163)

    We continute to see patterns emerging with regard to IT and agency (human options for choice)

    This paper focuses on the workplace, but we nod to other uses:

  2. Thanks Sally! It’s great that we can all be working this out in such a granular and asynchronous way. 🙂

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